The Strangest Man, By Graham Farmelo

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The Independent Culture

Paul Dirac was dubbed "the strangest man" by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr – with good reason. Dirac was a genius in his field: a peer and friend of Bohr and Einstein, and the youngest theoretician to win a Nobel prize (he shared it with Erwin Schrödinger in 1933), whose mathematical synthesis of quantum mechanics and relativity predicted the existence of antimatter. But as a personality he was a decidedly odd, shy, uncommunicative man.

When a student, Dirac would relax by going for long, solitary walks dressed in the three-piece suit he invariably wore (a snapshot shows him wearing it on the beach on his honeymoon in Brighton), climbing a tall tree and sitting in the branches eating apples. An academic seeking to make conversation with him at dinner at St John's College, Cambridge, asked him if he'd been to the cinema recently. Dirac thought and then replied, "Why do you wish to know?" On a visit to the USSR, Dirac was approached by two graduate students who outlined their new quantum theory to him. Dirac listened in silence for 15 minutes, then asked, "Where is the post office?" His colleague, the astronomer Fred Hoyle, once rang him to ask about a minor administrative matter. Dirac replied carefully: "I will put the telephone down for a minute and think, then speak again."

Graham Farmelo's sympathetic biography details Dirac's friendships, loves and hates (he detested his overly strict father so much that he refused to speak French, his father's native language), and makes one warm to this complicated man of deep feeling but limited expression. And as both a physicist and a skilled communicator, Farmelo is able to make Dirac's theories, if not comprehensible to the layperson, certainly intelligible in broad outline.

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